Kanji Causes Manga: Why?

archive7

Japan is a visually-oriented culture.

That makes sense. Why so?

Because of kanji of course.

I don’t follow.

Let me quote from Donald Richie’s book The Image Factory: Fads and Fashions in Japan (2003):

Some reasons have been suggested for Japan’s extreme affinity with this image-making process. One of these maintains that the nature of the written language predicates this disposition, that the kanji, the Chinese ideographs, are in themselves images and are so used by the Japanese, Vietnamese, and South Koreans (kanji are no longer used in North Korea) as well as the Chinese.

Each kanji character symbolizes a single idea. They are logographs in that one character sometime represents both the meaning and the sound of an entire word. In other languages (those constructed in the manner of an alphabet) a repertoire of images is neither required nor possible. Here a certain combination creates a formula — d—o—g = dog, a ‘translated’ image of the animal name. The same thing occurs in kanji, except that there is no middle step; 犬 at once becomes quan (chu’uan) in Chinese, ken or inu in Japanese. No ‘translation’ is necessary.

Or, as Frederick Schodt has put it, in discussing manga cartoons, ‘the Japanese are predisposed to more visual forms of communication owning to their writing system. Calligraphy… might be said to fuse drawing and writing. The individual ideograph… is a simple picture that represents a tangible object or an abstraction concept, emotion, or action.. in fact, a form of cartooning.

That ends that.

Let me get my head around this: the character for a dog 犬 looks like a dog, so it’s like looking at a cartoon for a dog?

Apparently, I can’t read Japanese myself.

What about 経常利益? Does that look like “ordinary profit” to you?

I don’t know. It could, I guess. I don’t know much about the financial world.

When I write the word “dog” do you slowly spell it out d-o-g or do you instantly see the shapes contained in the word “dog” to mean dog and call up the concept in your head immediately?

Yes, but you are missing the point. When the Japanese have to actually write out these kanji, they become cartoonists in a sense. Or at least more sensitive to the visual image.

So in having to write out 慶應 rather than “Keio,” I gain visual sensitivity.

Yes.

What if I write out the word in script けいおうinstead, does the lack of ideographs reduce my eye for visuals?

I am not sure what you are getting at. Remember: I am just italicized construct in an argument, rather than an actual person.

Forget that for a second. Japanese has both “cartoon” kanji and script—like kana. But China has only kanji. The Chinese are all kanji all the time. By this deductive logic, should China not be the world’s leading visual culture and the world’s most important market for comic books?

I think Chinese people like Japanese comics.

So do Americans, even though they were raised on an alphabet — which clearly lacks the amazingly visual properties of an ideograph system. What I am getting at is, how can we actually test the following deductive logic

A: Japanese uses ideographs
B: Ideographs are more visually-oriented than alphabets
———————————————————————————— Therefore,
C: The Japanese are visually-oriented

in an inductive manner. Is there a lot of linguistic experimentation backing up this idea?

I will Google that and get back to you.

If someone had asked you 50 years ago if the Japanese would fall in love with hamburgers, you would have probably said no, right?

Their culture is based on fish and vegetables.

Exactly. But hamburgers are now huge in Japan.

It’s a shame. But so what?

There was obviously some kind of historical development that happened in between Japanese “not eating beef and bread” to Japanese happily devouring them together with cheese on top.

And if that’s the case…

Is the brief pause in your discussion there supposed to indicate at a new paragraph?

Let me finish.

If that’s the case with hamburgers, how can we assume that the line between “kanji creating visual sensitivity” and manga/Japanese design culture was a straight path? Should we not look more closely at the specific development of the art form in a broader, reality-based method? Manga is a consumer item, a form of media. How did it become so popular? How was it distributed? How was it purchased? What were its alternatives and substitutes?

Yeah, but I’d rather just build theories around semi-deductive analysis of general Japanese traits I assume to be permanent and unbending.

God, it’s like I am putting the exact words I want to hear you say directly into your mouth.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
December 13, 2006

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

34 Responses

  1. Duffy Says:

    The kid’s good.

    I know you were giggling when you wrote this. As well you should have been.

  2. Carl Says:

    I’m with you on this one dog. Yes, Japan and America are different. But if you want to say the difference between Japanese and Americans is X for some really broad class of X, it’s pretty much going to be wrong.

  3. lauren Says:

    Is this your aforementioned “meta-marxy commentary” post then?

  4. marxy Says:

    As t –> infinity, all marxy posts become meta-marxy commentary.

  5. alin Says:

    i think since the 1984 mac at least, which is a long time really, we’re all “predisposed to more visual forms of communication owning to their writing system.”

    kanji scream for breathing space and ‘layout’, for non-linireality. – dense linearly writen kanji can become quite a mindfuck (hello cultural revolution)

    the japanese writing system is a unique set of slowing-downs and accelerations that offers transcendence within the text itself, in other words cancels the need for transcendence.

    american cartoons are still far more linear than manga.

  6. nate Says:

    your “italicized construct” was a pretty faithful representation of Ritchie’s stance.

    I think I commented something like this on an earlier post, but man that guy has a closed view of Japan DESPITE all the amazing people he’s interacted with over the years. Everyone, don’t get old!

    an even more faithful representation of his stance would have been to somehow have him aggressively approaching his interlocutor, then completely dismissing everything they had to say instead of trying to respond. ask any friends you may stil have ’round Cambridge way. the Yale talk was n’t pretty either!

  7. Mutantfrog Says:

    So, comics were invented in America because Japanese people think in pictures. Glad that’s settled.

  8. Farfar Says:

    Hmmm… What character in a popular epic fantasy film does this post remind me of?

    I actually feel like this is one of the most revealing posts recently… Mr. Marx tends to keep us at arms lenth, with nary a word about his personal life. There are many of us out here who read just to see if today will be the day you finally…

    The interesting thing about the Kanji myth is that it is perpetuated by the Japanese as well. It is absurd to claim that the considerable Japanese prowess in cartooning comes mainly from their writing system, but does the shape of the symbols used to write the language influence the aesthetics of the arts in Japan? Absolutely, from the medium of sumi-e being the same as that of caligraphy, to more esoteric concerns of composition and conceptual approach. I think it would be far more interesting if you reported on any serious research into this question, rather than just lampooning the outsiders who find Kanji fascinating. True, most characters aren’t pictographic today, but studying the role of pictographs in the evolution of the earliest Chinese characters is a big part of learning the language for both native speakers and outsiders, and people who have this connection between language and representational drawing must approach art changed by their studies. I know it had an impact on my own work; a giant tattoo of a dragon blowing a stream of fire that spells out the words, “bad-ass motherfucker” in Japanese Kanji across my sculpted pecs.

  9. marxy Says:

    For those you want to know more about me, I just totally passed out at my physical after they took my blood. (This has happened before.)

    I don’t feel so hot, so may not be responding to comments for a couple of hours. Everyone chat away though.

  10. alin Says:

    //So, comics were invented in America //

    well, yes and no: http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/1834/manga1/index.htm

  11. Mutantfrog Says:

    *I should have said “the west” because comics were not invented in America at all.

    Yes, manga was invented in Japan in the Edo period. In fact, sequential narrative art of this type is found in ancient Egyptian and Mayan art, and also in the illuminated manuscripts of medieval Christian monk artist/scribes.

    Single frame political cartoons were invented in Europe, and the newspaper comic began in Germany, although fully developed in the US, which led directly to the birth of the comic book format, as the newspaper comics section grew large enough for one entrepreneur to try publishing it on his own.

    “american cartoons are still far more linear than manga.”
    What is that supposed to mean?

  12. marxy Says:

    Obviously Japan had the raw material to start with, but I think the idea is that Tezuka and post-Tezuka manga were based on (improved upon, if you will) the American paneled strip with a forward narrative. They borrowed a form and went somewhere else with it.

  13. Yago Says:

    It’s funny because every time I tell a japanese friend how cool and pretty kanji are, they don’t have a clue. きれいだと思った事ない。めんどくさいだけじゃん is the normal answer.
    Of course I love them and feel very proud of being able to read and write them. But to link them to any ability of the Japanese people is plain dumb. Just a stupid strech of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    And by the way, not a single Kanji has been used in Vietnam for more than a century. And South Korea doesn’t use them anymore except for names and disambiguation. They are even changing many chinese technical words by native-sounding compounds.
    And did he have to use 犬 as an example? China says 狗 for dog since millenia ago. Is it so hard to make a bit of research before writing a book? Sheesh.

    “studying the role of pictographs in the evolution of the earliest Chinese characters is a big part of learning the language for both native speakers and outsiders”

    is it? Most japanese I know can’t even read pre-war characters. I really don’t think most of them remember anything about the early turtle-shell inscriptions, nor can actually read properly any seal-style letter.

  14. dzima Says:

    When I was first learning Japanese one particular phenomenon I found interesting was when a Japanese/Chinese person would find strange the fact that I knew the meaning of a certain kanji and could phonetically read it (say for example the word 綺麗, which is made up of rather complex characters) but wouldn’t be able to remember how to write it properly.

    Does it mean that in China/Japan absorbing verbal communication is the same as expressing verbal communication; are people better readers because of this mentality; in the West, does it mean that verbal/written/spoken language are so separate that it affects people’s ability to listen.

    >Mr. Marx tends to keep us at arms lenth, with nary a word about his personal life.

    The question that hasn’t been asked is: has Marxy married both the girls in Kiiiiiii? Is polygamy now allowed in Japan?

  15. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    >”Mr. Marx tends to keep us at arms lenth, with nary a word about his personal life.”

    God forbid.

    >”The question that hasn’t been asked is: has Marxy married both the girls in Kiiiiiii? Is polygamy now allowed in Japan?”

    Yes, I’m sure this is the case. Brilliant work.

  16. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    This was an enjoyable post, lets not spoil it with decontsructionism.

    marxy,

    I too passed out the last time I let them take my blood. I usually dont let them because most of the time they are not wearing (or changing) gloves and some place re-use the needles. Knowing how many of my co-workers frequent brothels and sex tourism kinda makes me not want to have anything to do with their bodily fluids.

  17. nate Says:

    whoa, there’s another nate.

    and dzima, did you really have that experience? My experience makes that sound like bullshit.

    Any character that people learn outside of the first 9 years of schooling is usually on the “hard to write” list. The first 1200 or so are drilled ad nauseum in class, and hanamaru’d up on the walls, but after that, you’re flying solo.

  18. dzima Says:

    >dzima, did you really have that experience?

    I did, with a few of my post-grad level born and bred Japanese language teachers and a couple of Chinese classmates. Why does it sound like bullshit to you?

  19. dzima Says:

    I also had a drunk teacher to come to me once at some nomikai telling me “I’m sorry about the hard time you’re having at my (text and advanced kanji reading) classes, but when I prepare for them I really only think about the Chinese students not you”.

    She was not that wrong about pushing me but after having to learn 1200 kanji in one year, my brain was going karoushi.

  20. nate Says:

    perhaps we learned kanji from different sorts. Ask them to write 薔薇.

  21. dzima Says:

    The only time I’ve seen these two kanji used was in 薔薇族.

  22. nate Says:

    my point is not their rarity, but the fact that you and most Japanese people can read them, but relatively few can write them. They’re outside the “muscle memory” class of characters.
    If you learned like I did (by way of radicals), you’re probably better-equipped to write the toughies than even the typical college grad. In that case it’s just a matter of putting all the letters in the right order, rather than pulling the 4000th most common character out of your ass in one piece.
    Sadly it makes me a slow reader and writer.

  23. nate Says:

    (then again, you did say you learned with chinese people… it wouldn’t make nearly as much sense for them to learn radicals like letters)

  24. dzima Says:

    >If you learned like I did (by way of radicals), you’re probably better-equipped to write the toughies

    I did learn by radicals like everyone else does, right?

    I was only in the same class with Chinese students when I was supposed to be in an advanced level, though I was no where near as good as they are of course.

  25. marxy Says:

    For kanji, I supplimented my formal university lessons with Grades 1-6 in the Kumon series (which I highly recommend!). I don’t think we went in a radical order, but it was a very gradual and calculated four years of incremental learning.

  26. check Says:

    Kanji In Context saved my soul.

  27. Mutantfrog Says:

    Lately I write kanji so rarely that I get stuck on even ones that should be very simple, even though I can read just about any one (except proper names) that appears in a newspaper or modern book. When I was studying Chinese last year I was able to write pretty decently, but without regular practice the ability fades away so quickly. It is interesting how ability to read kanji does not imply any ability to write them.

  28. mexist Says:

    marxy i’m beginning to worry about you… were you speaking in 4th person?

    I read somewhere that there was a study between people who read chinese characters versus western alphabets, and people who read chinese/kanji definitely picked up image details much more frequently and quickly that western alphabet readin’ folk…

  29. Mulboyne Says:

    http://www.zaman.com/?bl=hotnews&alt=&trh=20061212&hn=39141

    “A study of Japanese people aged 35 to 40 has shown that too much computer use has caused 90 percent of participants to forget a set of characters called ‘Kanji,’ used in handwriting…A Japanese professor had this to say about the difficulty of writing in Japanese: ‘When you are shown a picture of a cat and asked to identify it, you directly call it a cat. But, when you are asked to draw a picture of a cat, your chances of doing it are really unknown.'”

  30. Comic Fan Says:

    Marxy, you should check out “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” (http://www.amazon.com/Understanding-Comics-Invisible-Scott-McCloud/dp/006097625X/)

    It discusses what comic books are, where/when they started appearing in history, and the many innovations that Japanese manga artists brought to the field of cartooning.

    The book doesn’t directly answer your question about why manga make up such a large percent of the book industry in Japan, but touches on related subjects. I suspect that it has to do with timing of industry development. In the US, it just so happened that the first comic books were aimed at children, and so they never overcame that stereotype. In Japan, when the industrialized manga industry started up, there was no such stereotype to overcome, and thus could flourish as an adult literary form.

  31. junior Says:

    “It discusses what comic books are, where/when they started appearing in history, and the many innovations that Japanese manga artists brought to the field of cartooning.”

    Manga technique was covered in detail in the third book in the series, Making Comics, in the “Understanding Manga” chapter.

    Manga may be innovative, but that doesn’t mean western comics weren’t/aren’t innovative. Hell, the Understanding Comics series is innovative.

    “I suspect that it has to do with timing of industry development. In the US, it just so happened that the first comic books were aimed at children, and so they never overcame that stereotype. In Japan, when the industrialized manga industry started up, there was no such stereotype to overcome, and thus could flourish as an adult literary form.”

    I think that’s a good point, I think it also has a lot to do with a dysfunctional American production and distribution system.

  32. momobuta Says:

    Back to the heart of marxy’s kanji-visual culture myth thing, I think he’s getting at “manga culture theory,” or the notion of a monolithic, linear comic book tradition in Japan that takes us from edo period kibyoshi up to modern manga. Susan Napier, in her book “Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke,” applies similar logic to the study of anime. In the process of legitimizing the study of anime for a western academic audience, Napier explains that it is an almost naturally occurring popular art form because it “fits easily into the contemporary culture of the visual.” The “contemporary culture of the visual” she refers to is the result of Japan being “traditionally more pictocentric than the cultures of the West,” but Napier naturally fails to give evidence of Japan’s dominant “pictocentric tradition.”

    Why would Napier write, “anime is a popular cultural form that clearly builds on previous high cultural traditions”? from richie to schodt, this false trajectory of cultural transmission is routinely used as the source of legitimization for studies of Japanese pop culture. one reason might be because there is too much at stake for the idea of area studies in an academic institution if manga or anime are understood as forms that engage in a global discourse as much as the discourse of a specific cultural tradition. While the limitations of “manga culture theory” seem obvious enough, maybe it is the shortcomings of area studies pedagogy that keep it alive by devaluing the real issues at work when studying popular culture. I’m not sure, but that’s a guess.

  33. marxy Says:

    Thanks for the book tips. I was never in any doubt that there are volumes that clearly explain the historical and commercial rise of anime, but the “kanji leads to visual culture” thesis is so bunk and worthless that it’s not even worth mentioning.

    All of the people who employ this theory are not linguists (neither am I, admittedly!) but it makes so much sense in a broad, abstract deductive way that it’s hard not to throw it in there.

    Also, something I just thought of: what was literacy like before the Meiji era? How can this “visual impact of kanji” be universally Japanese if most people couldn’t read? Are we only interested in the elite readers? Did illiterate people enjoy ukiyo-e and the other pre-manga forms? My guess is yes.

  34. kanji_kowtow Says:

    The theory is worth considering because it leads to interesting discussion but it would be hard to prove. As usual, nobody bothers to ask the people that are actually involved in creating manga and other visual arts.

    What I do know is true is that non-Japanese graphic artists, no matter how brilliant or fluent in Japanese, are rarely given final say on how Japanese type is set. Aside from the universal elements of typeface, point size, kerning, leading etc. there are balances and aesthetics within sets of kanji/kana themselves.

    Conversely, you see beautifully produced English language print work in Japan, but with a glaring typo or grammar goof!